Nationwide efforts to lift COVID-19 mandates and restrictions have brought little relief to workers fired for refusing the vaccine when the virus was surging, prompting an outcry among those who say the unvaccinated shouldn’t face a lengthy lockout.
The city of Denver lifted its vaccine mandate for city employees earlier this month, but dozens of workers who were terminated for flouting the rules aren’t eligible for rehiring for five years.
United Airlines, a private employer that led the way in imposing vaccine mandates, said it is bringing over 2,000 unvaccinated employees who secured a reasonable accommodation from the mandate back into public-facing jobs, as the pandemic situation improves. But about 200 workers who did not seek a vaccine or exemption will not be welcomed back to the company.
The most notable case is in New York City, where Democratic Mayor Eric Adams decided to let unvaccinated athletes and entertainers work in the city to put them on equal footing with visiting performers who are unvaccinated and haven’t faced restrictions elsewhere. He said it will bolster the economic outlook for the city by attracting tourism and supporting entertainment jobs.
But public workers did not get similar relief from the mandate, prompting cries of a double standard for frontline workers, compared with Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving and baseball players such as Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees outfielder who has avoided questions about his vaccine status.
Pressed on the roughly 1,400 municipal workers who refused vaccination and were fired, Mr. Adams focused instead on the larger share of public workers who chose to get immunized and said the city is not entertaining compensation or changes to the rules.
Some say it’s the wrong call.
“This stance is ridiculous —why should the mayor tell Aaron Judge to play ball and ignore those less prominent? Of course, he ought to consider rehiring them,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “Those workers who were laid off ought not to suffer a lifetime ban as COVID begins to wane.”
The debate comes at a critical juncture in the pandemic fight. U.S. daily case counts have dipped to some of their lowest levels of the pandemic, and Biden administration officials insist they can weather a possible surge from the fast-moving BA.2 variant that struck Europe, citing vaccines and treatments that will make the virus more manageable.
Yet plans for normalcy are posing thorny tests for public officials and employers who imposed stringent rules during the delta and omicron waves of the virus last year. Employers and public officials say the rules were largely successful in lifting vaccination rates above 95% or other desirable levels.
Still, unwinding those rules for a pandemic-weary public while remaining vigilant of future virus surges can be difficult.
Some places were nimble in their vaccine requirements, making the pivot easier.
San Diego County said it will no longer force new hires to be vaccinated as of April 4. Since the vaccine mandate only applied to future employees, no one was terminated while the rule was in effect.
Current employees who remained unvaccinated had to submit to testing and wear masks, and two workers in office administration were placed on leave for refusing to comply. Both will come back to work on April 4, county officials said.
In Denver, officials said 90% of Coloradans have some type of antibody protection against the virus from vaccines or prior infection.
“These circumstances allowed us to lift the public health order which required vaccinations for city employees (among others) and transition to a longer-term approach that treats COVID-19 as an endemic disease and reserves public health orders for urgent situations,” said the city Public Health & Environment in a written statement.
Thirty-two employees were dismissed for noncompliance under the mandate, including 24 who refused to provide their vaccination status and eight who did not comply with vaccine-exemption rules that required regular testing and masking.
The department said under the city’s Career Service Rules, “city employees who were terminated for violations of the vaccine mandate are not eligible for rehire for five years.”
“The change in the mandate now does not change prior violations,” it said.
Likewise, Mr. Adams said the 1,400 New York City workers ousted due to the mandates were aware of the obligations under city rules.
“They understood that, regardless of their opinions and feelings, they were municipal workers,” Mr. Adams said. “These cases were played out in court, the judge ruled on behalf of the city.”
Mr. Adams said he understood that many people wouldn’t like his decision but that “tough choices take a tough person to be able to make them.”
The city’s Police Benevolent Association said it would like to see relief for first responders who were mandated to get the vaccine. It’s a position echoed by Republican figures who say impacted employees also deserve back pay after serving on the frontlines of the pandemic and getting tripped up by mandates.
“This is a classic example of the untidy logic of liberal-elite political leaders,” said Paul Mango, the deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration.“In [New York City], the mayor is extending the front of his hand to wealthy athletes having no claim on the safe or efficient functioning of the municipality, while he gives the back of his hand to hard-working middle class workers essential to that same municipality’s well-being. All of these leaders, whose prior poor decisions have impacted the lives and livelihoods of thousands of well-intended public servants, owe these fired individuals an apology, back-pay, resumption of their careers, and gratitude for serving their fellow Americans during the early days of the pandemic when no vaccines or therapeutics existed.”
New York Republicans — including Reps. Claudia Tenney, Elise Stefanik, Lee Zeldin, Andrew R. Garbarino and Chris Jacobs — wrote to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul this week urging her to lift vaccine mandates on essential workers. They’re particularly worried about staffing shortages in the power utilities and health care sectors, and said fired workers should be brought back.
“We ask that you do not enact any additional vaccine mandates and immediately take steps in New York to roll back existing mandates that may prevent these essential workers from doing their jobs,” they wrote. “The state also needs to find ways to help those who lost their jobs due to vaccine mandates get new employment or get their previous job back. No person should lose employment, income, or access to services and facilities because of this personal medical decision.”
LeadingAge New York, an advocacy group for older Americans, said President Biden’s federal mandate on health workers through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will likely supersede what the governor chooses to do.
“New York’s mandate for vaccination pre-dated the CMS rule but is now a moot point given the federal mandate,” President James W. Clyne Jr. said. “New York also mandated nursing home staff to get the booster but this mandate was not implemented and has since been repealed. This was done prior to the congressional letter.”
He said, “In New York, most of the nursing home workers that did not want to be vaccinated left their nursing home job for other work before the mandate took effect so they were not fired. Any nursing home worker hired now knows they have to have to complete the vaccination process.”